The agriturismo-style restaurant with rooms that made me love the Kent coast even more
I once had an eccentric relative who hosted drinks parties in her Chelsea flat “so the young could meet”. It was a wonderful way to get to know others my age when I first came to London. She was good at finding common ground between guests, though, cruelly, we also bonded in our mutual dismay at having to drink thimblefuls of sherry with dotty Aunt Ella.
I suppose I am now about the same age as her and probably just as dotty. And now, like her, I want to introduce some youngsters (well, decades younger than me) to one another, for most of them haven’t met and they have something special in common. For my first soirée I would invite Ruth Leigh and Oli Brown of Updown Farmhouse to meet Olive and Hugo Guest of Glebe House, Devon; Lottie and Tom Adams of Coombeshead Farm, Devon; and Brad and Kristie Lomas of Boys Hall, Kent. I would ditch the sherry; they all know a thing or three about wine.
All of the above, and a few others, are doing something exciting and exceptional on Britain’s hotel scene and it brings joy to my heart. They are personable, committed, hard-working but also relaxed; partners in life as well as work, all with young children, who are creating places to stay and eat that embody the age-old traditions of hospitality: warmth, kindness, the rhythms of nature, good living, sensible sustainability and a lifestyle in which their families fit harmoniously with the operations they run. So much of British hospitality is now entwined with business, constructed as vehicles for real estate and profit, that young, independent individuals like these have become almost invisible.
But here they are, and their creations – essentially agriturismo-style restaurants with rooms – feel like a long soak in a lavender-scented, warm bath after a hard day.
The Kent coast is a place I’m always happy to go to, and Deal is an especial delight. A few days before I stayed the night in my calm pale green (just the right shade) bedroom and pale pink (ditto) bathroom at Updown Farmhouse, I was in London, occupying a suite at a top hotel that cost more than £6,000 per night. I know which room I preferred.
Before collapsing into my five-star, deeply luxurious bed at Updown, my friends and I had feasted in the charming, authentically boho/rustic barn restaurant, where Oli and two fellow chefs cook everything on a wood fire.
Patio gas heaters keep diners warm (in summer, tables spill onto the terrace), the service from locals is smiling and exemplary, the atmosphere animated with a mix of guests young and old, and the food on the daily-changing menu utterly scrumptious (for us, crab bruschetta with white asparagus; bourride; lamb with artichokes and gnocchi; blood orange crème caramel). Ruth advised a bottle of Dolcetto d’Alba from Piedmont: it was spot-on. “This is like the Pig,” said Lexi, “but real.” Of course, the Pig Hotels are real, and brilliant, but I know what she meant.
Updown is a mellow, compact brick farmhouse with a Victorian front half bolted on to the original 17th-century house, which faces eight acres of grounds in Kent countryside inland from Deal. Like Boys Hall, it was bought and redecorated during lockdown and like Glebe House, its interiors are uplifting and artistic, adding a real fillip to the experience of staying there. Like Coombeshead, cooking and craft workshops are about to start in another barn.
From the vibrant orange library to the plant-filled conservatory for breakfast, the rooms sing, with arresting modern art on the walls. Ruth (front of house) is the daughter of the great chef Rowley Leigh and started her career in restaurants as a waitress at Kensington Place when she was 17.
Ruth and Oli, a fine chef himself, are accommodating toward their guests. My friend was driven to and from her nearby home by a staff member who ferries diners to save them having to drive or order a taxi. Room service, at any time, is available, unusual in a small five-bedroom place, as are children’s meals; whatever and whenever they want. There’s a cocktail hour in the sitting room, with a choice of two concoctions each evening; shelves of interesting books; an honesty bar… the sort of touches that make all the difference and mark out hosts who understand the basics of hospitality and how to bring people happily together. As, I suppose, in her way, did Aunt Ella.
Doubles from £225 per night, including breakfast. Updown Road, Betteshanger, Deal CT14 0EF (07842244192; updownfarmhouse.com). For more hotel suggestions in Kent, see our guide.